After checking out of the Saga, I travel by taxi across town to Wudaokou, my old stomping ground, and check into the new Haidian Holiday Inn. Immediately I rush to meet Jerry at the main gate at Beijing Culture and Language University by noon. Jerry and I met in 2011. He was part of a group of students from BCLU who would accompany me to Art District 798 or attend cooking parties at my flat.
He leads me onto campus and into a Japanese restaurant where we order tiger roll, miso soup, and rice.
Jerry is studying the Toefl English Competency Test required by all overseas higher education institutions. He wants to come to California to study IT at San Jose State University for a post graduate degree.
Back on the street, Jerry hails a cab with one of several mobile apps available and we cross town to the Four Season’s Hotel in the upscale Wanfujing neighborhood. Here is being hosted a private art salon. The featured guest is an artist. He studied English with Jerry and gave him an invitation. Other forum participants are editors of food and lifestyle magazines, an architect and a clothes designer besides the coordinator representing a design house. Halfway through, I’m surprised to see my friend Yan Liu drop in and catch my eye across the room. I also met Yan in 2011. We both attended a poetry reading at Tsinghua, and she later invited me to present a paper at the CAFIC conference in 2013.
After hobnobbing with artists, we travel to another place where Yan’s friends have two art galleries. Later over fabulous vegetarian Korean dinner, we plan art and culture exchanges.
Buffet breakfast at the Holiday Inn is dragon fruit juice, hong cha hui nai he tang, mini muffin and melon slices. I bring my phone and travel info to breakfast and call C-trip between bites to complete my travel arrangements for the balance of my trip. The headwaiter hovers on air, discretely filling my cup.
I walk the short distance, perhaps 400m, to ChengFuLu. Suddenly everything is familiar: Wudaokou Subway Station, the French bakery and Hualian Shopping Center.
I make straight to Samsung to put more money on my phone. I never know when I might suddenly run out of minutes. It’s not that they don’t send me messages. I ignore them. They’re in Chinese. Not that I ignore them anymore.
Most of my communicating occurs on a mobile app called WeChat. Most of my China friends have WeChat accounts. Its free, has audio, you can send images and documents. Everyone uses it. My phone whistles at me when a message comes in.
This afternoon I am so joyous to see my friends Li and Monica! My dear, young friends. Over pu’er tea and nibbles, we catch up on each other’s lives. Monica continues to work for at big Pharma, testing enterprise software and customizing it for the engineers. Li’s baby is one-and-a-half years old and is a bright boy named Kaichun. He arrives separately with his Ayi and Li’s mother who join us after tea for dinner.
Li is a stay-at-home mom and is breast feeding although Kaichun eats some solid food. She is a very conscientious mother, going organic and healthy foods for her family. He drinks sips of coffee and has tasted chocolate!
Tearfully we hug and kiss on the dark sidewalk in front of the deserted science park. Li turns west to return to her red-brick apartment on Tsinghua campus surrounded with Sichuan peppercorn bushes near my former Puji Apartment.
Monica and I turn west and pass along the familiar ChengFuLu. The conversation trends to the future of humanity and the singularity. Being a scientist, she knows about it and Kurzweil, the inventor of the term, and being a scientist she loves the idea and embraces the increased interactions between machines and humans as a good thing. She points out how meeting people and making friends has been enhanced with WeChat.
Me?! I’m terrified. For me, the future of humanity and especially womankind, is doomed, art is archaic, culture useless. But hey, present Chery is out there battling with future Chery in my story.
We turn north, and Monica accompanies me through a dark and quiet residential neighborhood under a black allee of trees toward the Holiday Inn. As we walk, I share with her my story thread, how the main character, Mai Martin, becomes ensnared in a futuristic experiment developing synthetic telepathy. Partly willingly and partly coerced and at one pint injected with artificial blood filled with nanobots, Mai rolls the story into the future. I struggle to find meaning and clues for humans as the characters are caught in the vise of control as the sovereign nations of China and the US claim ownership of the experiment and the surprising results. Top secret stuff. Don’t tell anybody. :)
The morning is bright and clear, dawn reflects off the gigantic water-heating plant for the Tsinghua passive heating system used in winter that I can see in a panorama across the train tracks from my hotel window. I can see far off to the Western Hills in receding ariel perspective under streaky contrails. Trains cross north and south every few minutes.
I’m breakfasting in the luxurious room, reclining in an executive style chair with my feet propped on an upholstered setee. A marble table at my elbow holds hong cha with nestle creamer, brown sugar, orange, banana, egg tart and moon cake.
I haven’t had Skype or internet for days. At least I can fill the void with music I painstakingly downloaded onto my computer before I left.
Why am I a little teary? Familiar and unfamiliar float in a water color montage ─ another train passes ─ real and unreal hides, indistinguishable from this perspective. Dreams repeat, strange phrases persist.
Below in a park behind the hotel, a wedding is being set up with rows of chairs covered in white with large, pink bows, Chinese happiness symbols flutter on sticks, and flower arrangements are delivered. It’s breezy after days of sultry, smoggy doldrums.
Feng is caught in traffic. A trip that should take ten minutes stretches to more than half an hour. Her darling parents are in the back seat, in their 70’s, both retired law professors. We stop to pick up her 13 year old son, Alex, and go on to lunch at Tsinghua. Alex is studying an integrated math curriculum of geometry and algebra in what would be our equivalent of 8th grade.
I met Feng also in 2011. She works at the Housing Department where she helped me with many things regarding my Puji Apartment.
Today we have plates of mushu duck, shrimp with fresh soybeans, watermelon and corn, two kinds of juices, sweet and sour fish, dumplings, taro filled steamed buns, and two kinds of soup.
I am so happy to meet my friends again. Life is uncertain, and the future is unclear. We meet today and enjoy a few hours together. They are the same beautiful women I knew when working at TU. Feng’s son is growing up fast. He will be a man soon. I see her parents, bright and full of life. I see Li’s young son growing like a sprout. We hope it won’t be another two years ─ or longer ─ before we meet again.
The hotel dining room is jammed with people who appear to be attending various conferences or business meetings at the nearby universities, institutes or corporations. I’m dressed for success in new sweater, skirt, black tights and out the door by 8:30AM. I walk a short 15 minutes to Wudaokou station and catch a ride to Kelly Center, way on the other side of town and adjacent to the distinctive Rem Koolhas skyscraper.
I meet my party in the most luxurious and hip Starbucks imaginable. Its split level with sumptuous tapestry and wall finishes. The baristas are jaunty in black straw pork pie hats and blue and white checkered shirts. I dawdle on the way back to Wudaokou, getting a fresh squeezed pomegranate juice on the side walk for a staggering 20Y.
I meet a darling young Russian student on the subway and return to Wudaokou past lunchtime. Wo ele, I’m hungry, so I hunt down a noodle shop serving Korean style Beijing cold noodle, bu cuo and jia we jing, without meat or MSG, for 20Y. Wedged into the miniscule eatery are two young couples of Beijing style.
This evening, resting, snacking on fruit, Li’s cakes and jasmine tea from the mini bar. The internet genies allow me to confirm my flight via United on Skype. I wash my hair. At night I pant the scene from the window. My story characters begin talking and a scene emerges. I write a couple pages of dialog before falling to sleep.
It is overcast and drizzly, but not smog, and much cooler today. My plan to paint the morning sun on the scene dashed.
At breakfast can’t help overhearing two young men discussing in English. In a few minutes, they have joined me at my table ─ one from California and one from Shanghai. They are in Beijing to pitch for funding from venture capitalist Beijing Zhongguancun and Tsinghua Holdings FoF angel fund with RMB1 billion to give away.
A man in the elevator tells me not to worry about the air today. On the way out the door I discover he is a businessman, not a scientist, for a mobile communications company and is going out to pitch venture capitalists, the same angel fund.
After brisk walking, I’m soon warmed up and arrive at Tsinghua campus. Four magpies sport in the wet grass, 4xLUCK!
Colorful banners along the promenade between the East Gate and the Main Building announce Tsinghua’s advisory board meeting. VIPs include Jack Ma CEO and founder of Alibaba and Mary Barr CEO of Ford Motor Company. Behind the massive soviet era building I loiter in the parking taking pictures of the abduction scene in the first book, Beijing Abduction. Across the way is Commander Gao’s bamboo grove and the basketball courts where young students are practicing running relays with their arms full of balls.
At the Tingtao canting upstairs dining room, I meet my former colleagues. My former Supervisor, Ms Song’s hair is longer and swings to her shoulders. Her son is 10 and in the 5th grade learning about decimals in multiplication and division. My former department is now called Office of Global Communications and Outreach ─ to the galaxy and beyond.
My former Director, Prof Chen, tells me she has two assistants now and has more time to pursue her love of words and writing. She has translated into Chinese “The White Tiger,” a poem by Indian author Aravind Adig which won the 40th Man Booker Prize. Her son is 22 and graduating this year from Nottingham Trent University in Nottingham, England.
It’s great walking through the campus, even on this dismal day. A fit of breeze flutters small leaves across my path. The shopping center is deserted this time of day. I shop for Sichuan peppercorns and get three packages for 74Y. Four pairs of gloves for myself and gifts only came to 40Y. The government subsidized shopping center is very affordable. The indoor farmers’ market is just as I remember but the street at the end is barricaded with bollards against cars. Sidewalks are now where the bing maker used to have his cart and the girl sold peanuts.
Passing through the hutong, I go out through the pedestrian gate to the massage clinic I used to frequent. It’s still there! Fantastic! The owner heard my voice and came around the corner to hug me. She recommended a new treatment including lying over a shelf of burning briquettes with a vaporizer on my chest under a blanket.
The concierge calls to confirm my check out tomorrow and schedules a taxi form at 9AM, how considerate. I love this place.
Yi huir jian!